17/9/2017

Embrace of the Serpent, 2015 - ★★★★★

A dream-like dual story of two Western explorers, separated by 40 years or so, enlisting the help of Karamakate (brilliantly played by Nilbio Torres and Antonio Bolivar) to find a rare plant. Both want to find this plant to heal them in different ways, though both are exploiting the knowledge of Karamakate and his people and the resources of Amazonia. If you’re a Westerner, it’s hard to watch this film without feeling acute sorrow and shame for the havoc we have wreaked, environmentally and culturally on the region, and for what we continue to do.

Dreams play a major role in the film. Evan (the later explorer) cannot dream, and persuades Karamakate to let him take a plant-derived drug to try to dream, but that doesn’t work for him. Karamakate sees the two Western men as one person divided in time, and by the time he meets the later explorer (Evan) he has partially lost his memory and his sense of himself, having lived so long alone. The film is also concerned with cultural misunderstandings. Karamakate wants the men to shut up and open themselves up to the wisdom of the forest. At one point, Theo (the earlier explorer), as a go at paddling the canoe, hacking the paddle into the water as if he’s trying to kill it. Karamakate tells him to slow down, and that the river will tell him when he needs to paddle, if he will only listen. But the scientists, while sympathetic and open to other cultures in many ways, can’t really begin to understand this approach to the world around them. Karamakate cannot understand why they burden themselves with so much baggage (literally, but also metaphorically), even though Theo tries to explain that his notebooks and specimens are the only link to his wife and family, and the only proof of the things he has seen (in effect, that it wasn’t all a dream).

The film is a sad depiction of a long history of exploitation, incomprehension, distrust and betrayal, but in the end it also manages to be an uplifting portrayal of trust and friendship across a cultural divide.

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